South American Archaeology Paper
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14-06-2015, 01:23 AM
South American Archaeology Paper
I wrote this article for a class in 2014. It recently won a departmental award for best archaeological paper at my university....

Tracking the Cat: The Biography of a Nazca Water Pot with Feline Motif

By Jim R. McClanahan

Museum goers learn basic information about an object on display by reading the name plate. This contains the title, its possible meaning (if applicable), the culture in which it was made, and a date (if known). But this is only a small part of the total picture. They are spared the history of how the museum actually came into possession of a given piece. An object may have been acquired in a sanctioned sale or archaeological dig in which representatives from different governments worked together in order to accurately record its provenance and cultural meaning. But this is not always the case. Some pieces, like those acquired from private collections, may not have any background information because they were originally procured through less than reputable sources like looters. This brings up the subject of ethics as US government-funded agencies like museums and universities have a long history of holding items obtained against the wishes of indigenous people (Ferguson 1996).

Miami University houses a number of artifacts originally held in the private collection of James A. Coulter (d. 1955), a Miami alumnus (class of 1905) and amateur archaeologist who acquired pieces from the Americas, Europe, and Southeast Asia in his business travels. One particular piece is a double-spout and bridge water pot with a feline motif. I covered the vessel (item #1-401) (fig. 1-4) in a previous paper in which I traced it and its iconographical elements to the Nazca culture of Peru (1–700 CE). The current work serves as a biography of the vessel by tracing how it came to reside in the university. I will cover its manufacture, purpose, how it was most likely discovered, when it possibly came into Mr. Coulter’s possession, and its transfer to Miami. International law will briefly be touched upon to show that institutions may still have an ethical responsibility to return a piece even if they are not legally obligated to.

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Fig. 1 – (Left) Feline figure #1- front view (larger version).
Fig. 2 – (Right) Feline figure #1 - side view (larger version).

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Fig. 3 – (Left) Feline figure #2 - front view (larger version).
Fig. 4 – (Right) Feline figure #2 - side view (larger version).

Neutron activation analysis of similar vessels suggests that #1-401 began life as silt swirling at the bottom of a river bed somewhere within the lower Nazca Valley. The clay was gathered within a three to four mile radius of the holy city of Cahuachi (fig. 5). There, it was used as a multipurpose material to make both adobe structures and pottery (Vaughn and Neff: 1583-1584). The clay set aside for crockery was taken to a central hub and/or individual homes which acted as the manufacturing complex lorded over by the Nazca elite. They distributed the goods to those people from the outlying regions that came to make pilgrimage to the holy city (Vaughn and Neff: 1584). Given the asymmetrical nature of the piece (in comparison to examples featured in other museums), I would like to imagine the maker was perhaps a young apprentice learning the skill from a family member. The process of making the pottery involved several steps. The bottom was shaped on a curved plate and the walls were built up using a combination of coiling, pinching, padding, and scraping. Finally, two holes were cut into the crown of the enclosed globe in order to attach the double-spouts and bridge (Carmichael 1986: 34-38).

The apprentice then painted the vessel with polychrome slip, doing the background colors first before outlining the two feline figures with black and filling the rest of the colors in afterwards. This animal motif would have had special cultural significance to the young artist as it is a representation of a spirit of the harvest. The Nazca believed the feline, specifically the Pampas cat (Felis colocolo), which is present throughout South America (Garcia-Perea 1994), kept the crops healthy by eating pests (Proulx 2008: 578). After finishing the vessel and several more like it, the apprentice helped his master dig a shallow pit and line it with combustible material like huarango wood, rush, or llama dung (Proulx 2006: 28). The vessels cooked in an oxidizing fire until the slip set and the clay hardened. Several elements on #1-401 show that this took place around the year 200 CE during the third of nine recognized phases of Nazca pottery. This includes the smooth, uncracked slip (an innovation in slip technology at this time), the crescent-shaped spots on the cat’s back, the black cap on the head, and the total lack of vegetal body decorations which came to dominate later phases (Wolf 1981: 3-4).

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Fig. 5 – Map of the Lower Nasca Valley (Adapted from Vaughn and
Neff 2004). Cahuachi is indicated by the red dot.

#1-401 may have been made specifically to place in a ritual burial. For instance, the Latin American archaeologist Dr. Julio C. Tello (1880–1947) discovered several graves along the Aja River in September 1926 (Kroeber 1998: 33), one of which contained a similar vessel. In particular, Aja site B grave 3 contained a double-spout and bridge water pot with the pampas cat motif (Kroeber 1998: 116). It was buried in a small stick and mud-covered chamber at a depth of 240 cm (7.8 ft.) along with eight other kinds of vessels. The pottery was lined along the west end of the square chamber where the body (now only small fragments of bone) once faced (Kroeber 1998: 66-67). Donald Proulx (2006) notes that bodies were normally buried in a seated position and that they were “sometimes accompanied by offerings such as pottery vessels (often containing food and drink)…and other items of everyday use” (9-10). This suggests the vessel may have contained liquid to refresh the deceased in the afterlife. Evidence of the burial of #1-401 comes in the form of a hole on the face of the vessel (fig. 6). This was most likely caused by a looter’s probe. Roger Atwood (2004) describes its use:

Quote:For the first hour, all [the looters] did was prospect for tombs by driving in their slender, six-foot-long steel poles… If they hit nothing, they moved on. If the pole suddenly met no resistance, that meant it had pierced an empty pot that probably accompanied a tomb. And if the pole made a certain muffled crack, that meant it had hit a body (25).

Unfortunately, when the vessel was removed from its archaeological context, much of what could have been learned about its exact history—like where it was found and who it was buried with, for example—was lost to time.

Nazca pottery was originally collected by rich Peruvians and foreign businessmen living in the country during the late 19th-century. The items in their respective collections were probably acquired by looters since archaeologist didn’t start digging in the region until the turn of the century. Max Uhle (1856–1944) became the first archaeologist active in Peru in 1901 after having come across polychrome pottery sold to the German University Für Völkerkunde by a Peruvian physician some twenty years earlier. Proulx (1999) suggests the 660 pieces that he acquired in the Nazca valley in 1905 were “most likely purchas[ed]…from huaqeros (grave robbers), for there is no evidence that he carried out any excavations while he was there” (60). Such pottery was still relatively unknown during the early 20th-century.

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Fig. 6 – The damage caused by the looter’s probe (larger version).

The real star of Peruvian archaeology at the time was the beautiful, brightly-colored textiles of the Paracas culture (700 BCE–1 CE), the precursor of the Nazca (Proulx 2008: 572). The previously unknown culture was officially described by Dr. Tello and S.K. Lothrop of Harvard starting in 1925 after following the trail of looters led them to disturbed burial chambers. Subsequent field work over the next couple of years turned up the famous Paracas Necropolis (city of the dead) that yielded hundreds of textiles. Museums all over the world rushed to exhibit such pieces since the mysterious Paracas culture had captured the publics’ imagination. Unfortunately, political turmoil caused Dr. Tello to resign as head of Peruvian archaeology in August of 1930. The lack of authority figures at dig sites then led to wide scale looting. It wasn’t long after that these textiles began to show up on the international market (Dwyer 1979: 106). Thus, public interest transformed cultural artifacts into works of much sought-after art. This demand opened the door for those willing to supply the pieces if the money was right.

The amount of looting that took place decades prior to and, especially, after Dr. Tello’s resignation is tied to a long history of economic and political turbulence in Peru. The country traditionally put too much stock into their natural resources. First they relied too heavily on gold and silver mining during the colonial era, but after the mines dried up (causing a worldwide silver shortage), Peru focused on guano production between 1840 and 1875. This market eventually fell through too, causing the government to change its focus to silver nitrate. Sadly, their economic woes coincided with a worldwide recession starting in 1873 that worsened their situation. Peru started to borrow large sums of money from foreign sources in the 1880s, equaling some $214 million. The amount owed to the United States by 1930 was $123 million. There was rampant unemployment in both the rural and urban sectors at this time. For instance, fifty percent of miners in the country (more specific data unavailable) and 19,000 workers in the city were jobless. A plan to expand employment was started by the serving president, but this was set aside by the next president. This forced the country to default on the US loans in 1931, which caused the many US citizens who had purchased loan bonds to lose money (Scheetz 1986: 65-66).

Peru’s economic problems were exacerbated by a failed war with Chile (1879–1884). The political turmoil did not end there as the democratically elected Civilian Party struggled to keep control of the government from the military. Several members of this party were elected through the first three decades of the 20th-century, but a military coup by Lt. Col. Sanchez Cerro (1889–1933) ended civilian control (MacHenry et. al 2010). It was this that led to Dr. Tello resigning from his position. Cerro eventually resigned from the presidency, leaving the position to be held by a line of other military officers. Thomas Scheetz (1986) comments that “this extremely unstable political situation [resulted in] five presidents between 22 August 1930 and 8 December 1931…” (75). Cerro was eventually voted back into office and held the presidency from 1931 until his assassination by a political enemy in 1933 (Encyclopædia Britannica).

If all of this is taken into consideration, a picture of what happened to #1-401 after its burial takes shape. The hard economic and political times cause a group of unemployed men to go in search of historical sites with archaeological treasures in order to support themselves and their families. They use long metal rods to probe the surrounding area in order to pinpoint burial chambers. THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! CRACK! A probe punctures the face of the vessel. The looters grab their picks and shovels and remove the soil foot by foot until they bust through the stick and mud roof of the chamber. A hand covered in sweat and dirt reaches in and pulls the pottery from its ancient resting place. The moon bathes the round object in a dim blue light allowing them to vaguely make it out its features. “How much do you think it’s worth?,” whispers a voice in Spanish. “I’m not sure, but the broker should know,” whispers another. They gather the night’s bounty in sacks and return home just before the sun starts to rise. Little do they know their find will end up in the hands of an American businessman from Oxford, Ohio.

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Fig. 7 – (Left) Page 1 of Coulter’s reply to the curator of the New Jersey State Museum (larger version). Take note
of the “From Peru” section. Fig. 8 – (Center) Page 1 of the summary of Coulter's activities and correspondences
(larger version). Take note of the entry for October 1935. Fig. 9 – (Right) Page 2 of the summary (larger version).
Notice how neither mentions Peru.

James A. Coulter was a Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Corporation exec who rose through the ranks to become the company’s vice president. His position granted him ample time to travel and his contacts abroad allowed him to extend his search for archaeological goods beyond his own reach. Miami University’s anthropology department archives contain hundreds of documents (itemized lists, handwritten and typed letters, newspaper clippings, etc.) and photographs dealing with the collection. One particular document, a two page typewritten letter dated Feb. 3, 1941 (fig. 7), is a reply to Curator Kathryn B. Greywacz’s request to borrow pieces from his collection for the New Jersey State Museum. He lists several items from different countries that he feels might peak her interest. Among those listed are the following:

Quote:From Peru

Prehistoric Pottery and Stone Implements
Old Ponchos, Tupas (bands for beasts of burden)
Small articles of Wearing Apparel – very old
Several Prehistoric Poly chrome Drinking Cups

The “Prehistoric Pottery” is no doubt the pre-colonial pottery of the Nazca culture. This implies that #1-401 was in his collection by at least early 1941. The exact year that he acquired it is still a mystery as pertinent documents about his travels do not mention Peru. One such document is a two page handwritten summary of Coulter’s travels and correspondences with a Dutch archaeologist with the surname Schaap from June 1935 to September 1949 (fig. 8 and 9). The summary mentions several Meso and South American countries (Mexico, Guatemala, Panama, Equador, etc.), but Peru is not listed among them. There are three possibilities at this point: 1) the records are incomplete and he did in fact visit the country; 2) he never personally traveled to Peru, having sent an agent in his stead; or 3) he purchased the Nazca material from a dealer or another collector.

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Fig. 10 – (Left) The photograph of #1-401 and other looted goods (larger version). Fig. 11 –
(Right) The agent's possible route through Peru during the early 1930s (larger version)

The lack of documentary evidence referencing Peru makes the first scenario less likely. The second scenario is more plausible as someone would have had to of purchased the water vessel for Coulter. A photograph nestled among the archival material features #1-401 and eleven other pieces of pottery on two wooden shelves. It carries the caption “Pottery Various Local Peru” (fig. 10). The picture appears to have been taken at a local business selling looted goods, suggesting it was shot by whoever obtained it, possibly the agent. In addition, an itemized list of all thirty-eight pieces collected in the country lists seven Peruvian cities. Plotting the names of these locations on a map provides a possible route (fig. 11), one in which the agent started in Lambayeque in the northwest and stayed close to the coastline, hopping from one city to the next, until he turned inland after a visit to Nazca. However, this evidence is circumstantial at best. Said agent is never mentioned in the documents, which makes verifying their existence difficult. Therefore, the third scenario is, in my humble opinion, the most likely. The strongest piece of evidence in favor of this appears in the aforementioned summary of Coulter’s activities from June 1935 to September 1949 (refer back to figure 8):

Quote:1935 – Oct - Unpacked collection into new home “most of the material that I have has been obtained through purchase or exchange. Relatively few pieces having been actually found by me or my immediate friends.”

This suggests that the vessel was acquired through “purchase or exchange” with a dealer or another collector sometime prior to October 1935. This of course is around the time when Peru defaulted on US loans, meaning that there would have been plenty of looted goods available at this time. And if Coulter did indeed purchase it from an outside source, the photograph was probably among the documents transferred to him by the original owner. The detailed nature of the itemized list implies that it was used for inventory purposes. This would have been necessary for keeping track of pieces in a large collection.

#1-401 can be identified in the itemized list (fig. 12). The very first item in the “Pottery from Peru” section states: “Decorated 2-Neck – Glazed | 6” x 6” | Nazca Bot. Lima | 25.00.” Although the listed measurements are slightly off—I measure it to be 6.7 x 5.2 in.—this is the only piece that matches the vessel. Again, it is a double-spout and bridge water pot. Whoever created the list most likely confused the polychrome slip for glaze. The information suggests the original owner paid $25.00 (or $431.75 in today’s money) for the pottery (“Inflation Calculator”), possibly buying it in Lima, Peru.

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Fig. 12 – The itemized list featuring #1-401 (larger version).
The entry is indicated by the yellow arrow

An article in the May 6, 1961 edition of the Miami Destination school magazine notes that Coulter willed his collection to Miami University after corresponding with Dr. George H. Fathauer, a professor of anthropology, in the early 1950s. Two years after Coulter’s death, Dr. Fathauer, his wife, and a group of coworkers arrived at the former exec’s home in Pennsylvania on April 1, 1957 to pack and transport the collection back to Miami. The collection has been housed in numerous buildings since then, including Irvin Hall, Harrison Hall, and finally Upham Hall where it resides to this day. The water vessel is currently housed in the archaeology lab of the building’s anthropology wing.

I would now like to briefly touch on the legal status of #1-401 as the legal and ethical issues of a museum or university owning looted pieces obtained from other countries is rarely discussed. As previously mentioned, grave robbing in Peru started taking place in the late 19th-century when the country’s economic and political problems coincided with a worldwide recession. The selling of looted goods to foreigners became such a problem by the late 1920s that Peru enacted the Creating the National Patronate of Archeology (Creando el Patronato Nacional de Archeologia) law (no. 6634) on June 13, 1929. The law dictated that all archaeological structures and artifacts found after that time were the sole property of Peru; any pieces that resided in local private collections had to be registered within one year; and local collectors were free to trade and sell their pieces in the country as they saw fit, but were forbidden to sell to foreigners (Truslow 1982-1983: 841-843). Coulter’s secondhand acquisition of the water vessel did not break this law as it only applied to Peruvian citizens, not foreign collectors. But even if Coulter knew about the law, this is an issue of ethics and not legality.

Several international laws were enacted after #1-401 came into Coulter’s possession. The first, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, was enacted in 1954 in order to protect cultural goods looted during a time of war. This obviously does not apply to the vessel as it was acquired during a time of peace decades prior to the ratification and enforcement of the convention. After #1-401 was transferred to Miami, the second law, the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, was enacted in 1970 as an addendum to the first to cover goods acquired during times of both war and peace (Reichelt 1986: 4-5). Again, this law does not apply to the pottery because it had been acquired decades prior to the ratification and enforcement of the convention. While the university is in the clear legally, it still has an ethical obligation to return #1-401 to Peru. Yet, I’m incline to think it’s best that the piece stays with the institution since it is currently being used to teach new generations of archaeologists about archaeological procedures, cultural history, iconography, and, most importantly, heritage loss and ethics.

In conclusion, vessel #1-401, a double-spout and bridge water pot with a feline motif, was created from clay silt from a river bed found within a three to four mile radius of the holy city of Cahuachi in the southern Nazca valley. Damage from a looter’s probe points to the pottery having been found in a ritual grave; it may have contained some sort of liquid in order to refresh the deceased in the afterlife. Exactly when the piece was looted is unknown as grave robbing first started in Peru as far back as the late 19th-century. It’s possible that this took place sometime in the early 1930s after Dr. Julio C. Tello resigned as head of Peruvian archaeology due to political turmoil. The lack of authority figures at archaeological sites would have led to wide scale looting since the treasures would’ve been a source of income for the droves of unemployed workers at this time.

A letter contained in the Miami University Anthropology Department archives points to #1-401 being in the collection of James A. Coulter, a Miami alumus, Colgate-Palmolive-Peet exec, and amateur archaeologist, by at least early 1941. Pertinent documents make no reference to Coulter ever having visiting Peru, nor do they mention an agent being sent in his stead. A hand written summary of his activities suggests that he acquired the vessel from a dealer or another collector sometime prior to October 1935. The exec later willed his collection to Miami University in the early 1950s. Following Coulter’s death, Miami representatives packed and transported the goods back to the institution where it has been housed for nearly sixty years.

The concept of an American museum or university owning looted goods is rarely discussed. Several international laws were created in the past eighty-six years to protect cultural property. For instance, so many looted goods were being sold to foreigners that Peru enacted a law in 1929 which stated any structures or artifacts found after that time were the sole property of the country unless previously owned objects residing in local private collections were registered. This only applied to citizens of Peru, so Coulter was not guilty of transgressing international law, especially since he most likely purchased it secondhand. Two other laws enacted in 1954 and 1970 ensured that items taken during times of war and peace would be repatriated. These laws do not apply to #1-401 as the vessel was acquired decades prior to their respective ratification and enforcement. Therefore, Miami University doesn’t have a legal obligation to return the piece, but it has an ethical responsibility to do so. But until repatriation occurs (that is if it ever happens), the vessel is best used to teach new generations of archaeologists about archaeological procedures, cultural history, iconography, and, most importantly, heritage loss and ethics.


Atwood, Roger. 2004. Stealing history: tomb raiders, smugglers, and the looting of the ancient world. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Carmichael, Patrick H. 1986. “Nasca Pottery Construction.” Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology 24: 31-48.

Dwyer, Jane P. 1979. “The Chronology and Iconography of Paracas-Style Textiles.” In The Junius B. Bird Pre-Columbian Textile Conference, May 19th and 20th, 1973. Ed. Elizabeth P. Benson, Junius Bouton Bird, Ann P. Rowe, and Anne-Louise Schaffer, 105-128. Washington, D.C: The Textile Museum & Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University.

Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Peru", accessed May 07, 2014,

Ferguson, T.J. 1996. “Native Americans and the Practice of Archaeology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 25 (1): 63-79.

Garcia-Perea, Rosa. 1994. “The Pampas Cat Group (genus Lynchailurus Severtzov, 1858) (carnivora: Felidae), a Systematic and Biogeographic Review.” American Museum Novitates 3096: 1-35.

“Inflation Calculator: Bureau of Labor Statistics”. (n.d.). Retrieved May 15, 2015, from

Kroeber, A. L., Donald Collier, and Patrick H. Carmichael. 1998. The archaeology and pottery of Nazca, Peru: Alfred L. Kroeber's 1926 expedition. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

MacHenry, Robert, Philip W. Goetz, and Dale H. Hoiberg. n.d. 2010. The new Encyclopaedia Britannica: Volume 13. Chicago [u.a.]: Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Proulx, Donald A. 1999. “The Nasca Culture: An Introduction.” In Nasca: Geheimnisvolle Zeichen im Alten Peru. Ed. Judith Rickenbach, 59-77. Zürich: Museum Rietberg Zürich.

----------. 2006. A Sourcebook of Nasca Ceramic Iconography Reading a Culture Through Its Art. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

----------. 2008. “Paracas and Nasca: Regional Cultures on the South Coast of Peru.” In Handbook of South American Archaeology. Ed. Helaine Silverman and William Harris Isbell. 563-585. New York: Springer.

Reichelt, Gerte. 1986. "Study on The Protection of Cultural Property". UNIDROIT. (accessed May 9, 2014).

Scheetz, Thomas Edward. 1986. Peru and the International Monetary Fund. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Truslow, Frederic J. 1982-1983. “Peru's Recovery of Cultural Patrimony.” New York University Journal: International Law and Politics 15 (839): 839-856.

Vaughn, Kevin J. and Hector Neff. 2004. “Tracing the Clay Source of Nasca Polychrome Pottery: Results from a Preliminary Raw Material Survey.” Journal of Archaeological Science 31: 1577-86.

Wolfe, Elizabeth Farkass. 1981. “The Spotted Cat and the Horrible Bird; Stylistic Change in Nasca 1–5 Ceramic Decoration.” Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology 19: 1-62.
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14-06-2015, 08:35 PM
RE: South American Archaeology Paper
Congratulations! Good work Thumbsup

Atheism is the only way to truly be free from sin.
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15-06-2015, 11:13 AM
RE: South American Archaeology Paper
Really nice piece, very well written. It shows quite a bit of maturity.

As a kid growing up in Perú, I remember many friends and family members had huacos (pre-Columbian pottery). My parents even had some in the study in our house. A huaquero (grave robber) would periodically stop by the house peddling huacos to my dad. As an adult, I realize how horrible this practice is since the context in which a piece is found is almost more important than the piece itself and this information is forever lost when a grave robber disturbs a site. More should be done to combat this black market.

The world is a small place... my great uncle was in the med-school class of Julio Tello.
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